Even though the 2015 NHL draft came and went without the Capitals making a significant trade, Caps general manager Brian MacLellan still believes the trade market – and not the free agent market -- is the best place for him to improve his soon-to-be-depleted roster for next season.
“I anticipate not being active right off the hop,” MacLellan told reporters when asked about his plans for Wednesday’s start of free agency. “I don’t know if we have the money to be able to do that.
“If you’re evaluating both markets the trade [market] is the way to go for improving your club.”
Last year, MacLellan admits he overspent in the free agent market, signing defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to a combined 12 years and $67 million.
But after offering what he termed a “huge” contract offer to restricted free agent goaltender Braden Holtby, MacLellan said the Caps are not in a position to be a big player in this year’s free-agent market.
“We made Holtby a good offer,” MacLellan said, declining to disclose the term or value. “I think it’s competitive and I think it’s a fair offer and I think we’ll get something done.”
The same cannot be said, at least immediately, about restricted free agent forward Marcus Johansson, who was given a qualifying offer of $2.175 million, equal to his 2014-15 salary. If Johansson is looking for $4 million a season and the Caps are only willing to pay him $3 million, his case could go to an NHL arbitrator.
It was with that in mind that the New York Rangers traded restricted free agent forward Carl Hagelin to the Anaheim Ducks for Emerson Etem and a second-round pick on Saturday, figuring he would cost them more than $3.5 million next season and more than $4 million in future years.
The Capitals currently have about $21 million in salary space and likely will be losing defenseman Mike Green and forwards Joel Ward and Eric Fehr to free agency. Assuming the Caps come to an agreement with Holtby, restricted free agent Evgeny Kuznetsov and unrestricted free agent Jay Beagle, they would have nine forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders under contract for next season with an estimated $9 or $10 million left over to fill three forward spots, including Johansson’s.
If Johansson eats up $4 million, MacLellan would be left with roughly $5 million or $6 million to land a top-line right wing and a depth defenseman.
Of course the Capitals could also free up cap space by trading a veteran like Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer or Jason Chimera. It is with all of that in mind that MacLellan wades trepidly into the trade/free agent waters.
Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Sharp, 33, is an attractive possibility, but he carries a cap hit of $5.9 million for two more years.
Vancouver’s Radim Vrbata, 34, is coming off a 31-goal season and has one year and $5 million left on his deal.
T.J. Oshie, 28, has put up similar offensive numbers as Johansson, and carries two more years at $4.175 million each.
Perhaps the best bargain out there is Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo, but Brooklyn/New York general manager Garth Snow changed his tune before the draft, saying he “doesn’t plan” on trading the 27-year-old right wing, who has one year and $4.5 million remaining on his contract.
MacLellan said he’s hopeful that some of the trade talks he initiated before and during this weekend’s draft result in a trade that addresses the Capitals’ needs, which are now at the forward position.
“There were a couple opportunities that were discussed and might still be ongoing,” MacLellan said. “Well see what happens over the next few days and weeks. A lot of talk happened in general over the past week. Some things happened and some things didn’t and some things are still ongoing. I think now it turns into players, but it might be picks involved in next year’s draft, too.”
MacLellan said there is still a chance that he invites a pending UFA to Washington to meet with ownership and the coaching staff prior to Wednesday’s free agency period but did not confirm that will happen.
Thane Campbell, the agent for Los Angeles Kings soon-to-be free agent Justin Williams, declined to say whether the 33-year-old right wing and three-time Stanley Cup champion planned on visiting Washington, saying he did not want to create a more competitive market than already exists go his client.
As for MacLellan, he said he’ll return to D.C. and devise a strategy for the start of free agency.
“We’ll monitor the market,” he said, “and see what the [pay] levels are at and see where we can jump in.”